By Scott Taylor, Winnipeg Goldeyes
Former Winnipeg Goldeyes lefthander Ian Thomas is on the verge of winning a spot in the Atlanta Braves bullpen. After a scintillating performance against the Washington Nationals on Thursday, Thomas suddenly moved to the top of the list of the three left-handers remaining in the chase for the final specialist’s job in the Braves pen.
On Thursday, Thomas threw an inning of scoreless relief as the Braves beat the Nationals 3-2. However, he had a rockier outing on Saturday, allowing two runs in an inning of work. He also struck out the side, however.
In six appearances (6.1 innings) with the big club this spring, Thomas is 1-0 with a 4.26 ERA. He’s allowed five hits, four walks and struck out 11. Opponents are hitting just .217 against him.
“I’m starting to feel strong and I’m feeling better with every appearance,” said Thomas, who pitched for three seasons in Winnipeg. “My first two appearances, I was just getting my legs underneath me. I was just trying to feel comfortable on the mound and get used to playing at the Major League level.
“Now, I feel great. I’m throwing every one of my pitches with confidence. Every pitch I throw, I know where the ball is going to go. That’s a really good feeling.”
Thomas, who has had a meteoric rise through the Braves system since leaving Winnipeg in 2011, was a non-roster invitee to camp this season. He’s made the mound at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista his own this spring and has impressed his coaches with his velocity and tenacity.
Even Goldeyes manager Rick Forney is on the Thomas bandwagon.
“I think it’s great that Ian is getting this opportunity,” Forney said recently. “He arrived fresh out of college (Virginia Commonwealth University) and became a pretty good pitcher with us. He has a lot of ability and can throw strikes. Even if he doesn’t make the big club right out of spring training, I would not be surprised if he pitched in the big leagues this season. He’s put up some pretty impressive numbers in the minors and he’s certainly on the Braves radar now.”
The 26-year-old left-hander (he turns 27 on April 20) started his professional career in Winnipeg and learned to be a pitcher at Shaw Park. He went 0-1 with a solid 2.81 ERA in a partial rookie season after he finished his career at VCU in 2009. In 2010, he went 5-1 with a terrific 1.64 ERA and in 2011, he was 6-3 with a 2.20 earned run average. He pitched the start of 2012 with York in the Atlantic League, but was signed by the Braves and was immediately sent to Class A in Rome, Ga.
After a 5-0 season with Rome, he moved up to Class AA last year and went 7-8 with a 2.76 ERA with Mississippi in the Southern League. Now, he’s at Braves camp on the Disney/ESPN fields and he’s starting to make some legitimate noise.
So far this spring, he’s involved in a three-way race for the final lefthander’s job in the Braves 12-man bullpen. When camp ends, it will be Thomas, Ryan Buchter or Atahualpa Severino in that job. Buchter, who is the only member of this group on the 40-man roster, has made four consecutive scoreless appearances since struggling through the early portion of the exhibition season. But manager Fredi Gonzalez is admittedly worried about Buchter’s inconsistent command. He walked a batter and hit a batter on Saturday.
“We want to see four, five or six of those [good] outings in a row,” Gonzalez told Mark Bowman of braves.com. “Everybody is going to throw a couple walks in here and there. But it can’t be every other outing. It can’t be every two outings. There has to be more consistency. Nine out of 10 times when that door flies open, you need to know what you’re going to get.”
Thomas, meanwhile, is just doing his job and keeping his head down.
“If I just keep doing my work, doing what I need to do, everything should fall into place,” said Thomas. “I’m starting to feel like there is a chance I could make the Opening Day roster. I’m not going to get too excited about it. After all, that decision is out of my control. But if I keep pitching the way I’ve pitching, I’ll be OK.
“The key is, I’m getting ahead of hitters. Rick always told us in Winnipeg, ‘Get that first pitch over for a strike. Get ahead of the hitters.’ I never forgot that and I’m still having it pounded into my head. I’m getting ahead of hitters this spring and when you do that, you’re in control, not the hitter. If I can keep doing what I’m doing now, things will work out.”
Photo: Winnipeg Goldeyes